Musings on Democracy – Part 1

Write about democracy my supervisor said.  I immediately felt overwhelmed.  Democracy is such a big concept, developed over centuries since the Ancient Greeks.  It is a also a loaded term – wars have been fought over it and it has been incorporated into political ideologies.

The way to cut this task to size is to recognise that democracy is but a word.  It only develops meaning if we choose to give it meaning by discussing what it is, what practices contribute to it and practice democracy in action.  It is what what we define it to be and therefore over the ages it changes.  We change, our circumstances change so the practices of democracy will naturally change also.

Two Party System

In answer to the Resident Judge’s question, the Federal election is cited as the first Federal election of the two party political system that Australia has practiced for a century.  The non-Labour groups had united federally in 1909.  This move was called fusion.  If you want to learn more about the thinking behind Alfred Deakin’s decision to join the new anti-Labour party I thoroughly recommend Judith Brett’s account in Australian Liberals and the Moral Middle Class.

The Labor party won the 1910 election.  The Sydney Morning Herald (29/4/1910, p8) attributed this to the ‘education, agitation and organisation’ undertaken by the Labor party.   After the election Alfred Deakin called on the Liberal party to give greater attention to this (Sydney Morning Herald, 15/4/1910, p 7).

‘How to Vote’ Cards

The names of political parties were not printed alongside candidates’ names until after 1983.  This made it important for the political parties to distribute ”How to Vote’ cards (Hughes:  1992, p 96).    The Brisbane Courier noted with satisfaction that ‘many of the fairer sex’ were seen entering a booth carrying the ‘model ballot papers’ published in the newspaper for the Liberal supporters. (Brisbane Courier, 14/4/1910, p 5).


What really interests me is the participation in political processes outside parliament.  The role of women was particularly noted in The Brisbane Courier and not just for registering to vote, they were involved in the campaigning too.  In the Federal electorate of Oxley,

… it was noticeable that outside every booth the work embraced in the general term “canvassing,” including the turning up of voters’ names on rolls, and the direction of who to vote for and how often, was left almost entirely to the women… (Brisbane Courier, 14/4/1910, p 5).

The women’s organising committee of the Labor party in New South Wales were noted for their ‘herculean efforts’ in canvassing (Sydney Morning Herald, 29/4/1910, p 6).

It was reported that one woman was unhappy that all the electoral officials at her booth were male,

…her humorous complaint of feeling embarrassed by so much masculine officaldom may possibly be accepted as a hint to the authorities.  Female poll clerks for female voters may become a condition of future elections. (Brisbane Courier, 14/4/1910, p 5).

Women had only gained the vote federally and in New South Wales in 1902 and in Queensland for state elections in 1905.  Victoria was the last to grant women the vote in state elections when it did so in 1905 (Australian Electoral Commission).  It is apparent from the reports on the election that their participation was still regarded as a novelty.

So what does this all mean for democracy at the time?  The two party system in 1910 was already shaping the way democracy was being practised in the form of ‘How to Vote’ cards.  While no parliaments in Australia had a female representative until Edith Cowan was elected to the West Australian parliament in 1921, women were involved in many aspects of the political process in 1910.


  • Judith Brett, Australian Liberals and the Moral Middle Class:  from Alfred Deakin to John Howard, (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2003).
  • Colin A. Hughes, ‘Australia and New Zealand’, in David Butler and Austin Ranney, eds, Electioneering:  A Comparative Study of Continuity and Change, (Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1992), pp 88-109).
  • Australian Newspapers
  • Australian Electoral Commission

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